Violence in African-American Communities

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Violence is part of every society. You may often hear, however, that America is particularly violent, and while this may be true compared to London or Paris, it is not true compared to Rio or Mexico City, or South Africa. Another point is worth making clear: in terms of the last 50 years, America is currently experiencing a fantastic period of low murder rates. If you think there is a murder epidemic today, I would like to hear what you thought of the 1980s, and perhaps the 1970s, for those of you who lived through that period.

How many here have seen Straight Outta Compton? Entertaining movie. Those were the real murder epidemic days. In 1980, at the beginning of the decade in which many of the film’s events occur, the murder rate was 10 per 100,000 (Cooper & Smith, 2011). It declined a bit during the 1980s, not much, but then spiked again in 1991, almost reaching 1980 high.

Today, the murder rate is only 4.4 per 100,000 people in the United States. Less than half of what it was during those days. So no, we are not experiencing an epidemic. If you measure peace in U.S. neighborhoods by the murder rate - admittedly a blunt instrument - we are more than 50% more peaceful than back then. People of all races and African-Americans, in particular, are much less likely to be shot dead in the streets. You may have heard of the gangster era of the 1930s, which was very violent: Pretty Boy Floyd, Al Capone, Bonnie & Clyde and all of that. Well, we had the “gangsta” era of the late 1970s through early 1990s, but that thankfully has also been relegated to the history books. Most parts of the U.S. are as peaceful as they were in the 1950s.

You may have caught some references to black culture and African-Americans in my lecture so far. Why is that? Are African-Americans really more violent than other races per capita? Well, the truth is yes, the homicide and violent crime rate is much higher among black people than among others, but let’s re-emphasize the progress that has been made. It’s true, today about half of all murderers and murder victims are black, as far as we can tell (the FBI has a large component of unknown murderers in their statistics, so it can be a little complicated). However, the total number of killers overall, and of African-American killers as well, are less than half of what they were in 1980. Thus, it is a problem—violence in black communities—but one that we must acknowledge great progress on. If you are an African-American, particularly a young male, you are much, much safer today than in the past.

Focusing on the progress that has been made is important. What we in the U.S. have been doing since 1980, and especially since 1991, has been working. We need to keep it up. This is important to emphasize because there are many efforts underway to undo some of the policies of the past several decades. The gang outreach programs, stepped-up law enforcement initiatives, mentoring policies—whatever we can prove has contributed to the success, we must continue, and we cannot undo policies that were in place during the decline in violence until we know for sure that they did not help to bring down violent crime.

There is much talk in recent years about how our justice system is too harsh. This may be true in isolated circumstances, and we definitely want a reduction in the horror stories of a black man serving 30 years for a crime he did not commit, but our law enforcement policy has saved literally hundreds of thousands of African-American lives since the 1980 murder peak, and the 1991 second peak. Softening up crime enforcement does not help the tens of millions of average African-American citizens, but it does make things easier for the tens of thousands of African-American killers.

Here is another point working making. We should keep the African-American murder problem in context. The FBI says that 6,329 black people were murdered in 2011 (“Murder Victims…,” 2011), mostly by other black people. There are about 40 million black people in the U.S. The murder problem is terrible, but it is a tiny minority of black people who commit this heinous crime. 

The problem is not as bad as it was, and it involves a tiny percentage of the black community. Having said that, there are still too many murders. We need to find out why the African-American community has a larger problem with violent crime than their Asian, white, and even Hispanic brothers and sisters, and then devise a solution.

An African-American writer for the Wall Street Journal traces the problem back to a soft-on-crime view that came in during the 1960s (Riley, 2014). Judges and lawmakers began empathizing with criminals and excusing their behavior. Softer sentencing guidelines were introduced. The result was a murder rate that skyrocketed from the late 1960s through 1980, and one that did not permanently start moving downward until 1992.

According to Riley, the black crime rate was much lower in the 1940s and 1950s (as cited in Bandler, 2014). This claim is backed up by overall national statistics, which show crime lower during that period, but then sharply rising in later decades. African-Americans were poorer and faced more racial oppression during these decades, but their violent crime rate was much lower.

This is important because some make the argument—always a shaky one—that poverty causes crime and even murder. If you are poor, you will go kill someone. This has never made much sense to me. I could see a link between subsistence level crimes for food, if someone was poor, but not murder. In addition, statistics from the Great Recession dealt a major blow to the crime/poverty link. African-American poverty rose significantly after 2008, but murder rates did not.

It is a nuanced and difficult issue, but perhaps the best solution to help bring African-American violence rates down even further is to do all we can to support and promote male-female relationships in which both the father and mother are present for all 18 years of a baby’s childhood. One study of juvenile criminals found that 70% did not grow up with both parents, another found that only 13% did Hymowitz (2012). The African-American community greatly outpaces most others in the large scale of single-parent homes. Children need supervision and mentorship, and it is best if this comes from their own moms and dads.

Another group of researchers surveyed all the data on parenting and juvenile delinquency and found that rejection, neglect and lack of support led to higher juvenile crime, and that increased parental monitoring and knowledge about their child’s activities led to lower delinquency (Hoeve et al., 2009). We should focus on the youth in particular because it is really young black males who are the ones getting killed. Going back to those 6,329 murders of black people in 2011, 4,032 of those victims were between the ages of 17 and 34 (“Murder Victims…,” 2011), and most were male. And again, they were generally killed by their peers, other young black males.

When the black violent crime was lower in the 1940s and 1950s, the family unit was strong, and, according to the African-American author Thomas Sowell (as cited in Bandler, 2016), most children were raised in two-parent homes. It may be uncomfortable to acknowledge that past generations did a better job than current ones, but those African-American fathers and mothers of the mid-20th century certainly did, under much more difficult circumstances.

We could talk about other solutions. Most criminals arrested for all types of crimes test positive for drugs (Kerlikowske, 2012). African-Americans under the influence of drugs may act in more violent ways than they would when sober. Another statistic that skyrocketed in the late 1960s, and paralleled the rise in murder rates, was not just single-parent homes, but drug use rates. If we can detox America, and black America as well, violent crime, and all crime, will fall.

Let me sum up this lecture in this way. We have made a lot of progress. Don’t undo all this progress. Build up the family in whatever way you can, and attack parts of the culture that degrade and minimize the nuclear family. For non-black people here, become involved in mentorship and after-school programs for kids that can serve as a stopgap while the African-American community regains its historical family roots. Not to shut anyone out, but let me just also say, for all you married African-American parents here today: thank you and God bless, keep it up. We need more of you to fix this problem. Thank you.

References

Bandler, A. (2016). 7 statistics you need to know about black-on-black crime. Daily Wire. Retrieved from http://www.dailywire.com/news/7441/7-statistics-you-need-know-about-black-black-crime-aaron-bandler#

Cooper, A., & Smith, E.L. (2011). Homicide trends in the United States, 1980-2008, annual rates for 2009 and 2010. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/htus8008.pdf

Hoeve, M., Dubas, J.S., Eichelsheim, V.I., van der Laan, P.H., Smeenk, W. & Gerris, J.R.M. (2009). The relationship between parenting and delinquency: A meta-analysis. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 37(6), 749-775. doi:  10.1007/s10802-009-9310-8

Hymowitz, K. (2012). The real, complex connection between single-parent families and crime. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2012/12/the-real-complex-connection-between-single-parent-families-and-crime/265860/

Kerlikowkse, R.G. (2012). Study: More than half of adult male arrestees test positive for at least one drug. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/r-gil-kerlikowske/arrestee-drug-use_b_1525397.html

Murder victims by age, sex, and race. (2011). FBI. Retrieved from https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/tables/expanded-homicide-data-table-2

Riley, J.L. (2012). Family secret: What the left won’t tell you about black crime. Washington Times. Retrieved from http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jul/21/family-secret-what-the-left-wont-tell-you-about-bl/